COSATU Message of Support: World Day of Safety and Health

The Impact of Climate Change on Occupational Health and Safety at Work

Programme Director,

Leadership of government, labour and business present,

Most importantly, the workers who keep all of us safe,

Colleagues, comrades and friends,

Thank you for inviting COSATU to join you in this important occasion today.  We value every opportunity to highlight the importance of ensuring that all workers are able to work in a safe environment. 

The health and safety of workers and working-class communities is under severe strain as climate change gathers momentum.  Not only must we accelerate interventions to mitigate the effects of climate change and arrest the causes, we must also intensify our efforts to protect the health and lives of workers.

COSATU and the trade union movement across the world have struggled for many years to protect the right of workers to work in a safe environment.  Today that right is codified under the Occupational Health and Safety Act which provides clear guidelines to assert this right. 

Yet all too often employers choose to ignore and undermine it with few being held accountable.  We have all too often see owners of clothing factories lock workers up with many tragically dying in fires and unable to escape.

Each week at least one mine worker dies at work and one police officer is killed in the line of duty.

The Department of Employment and Labour worked with COSATU and business to strengthen the OHSA in 2016 at Nedlac.  8 years later, the Department has still to table this important legislative amendment at Parliament that will guarantee workers the right to refuse dangerous work.

This is despite COSATU repeatedly reminding the Department to table this Bill at Parliament.  This needs to happen as soon as the 7th Administration takes office.

The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy tabled progressive amendments to the Mine Health and Safety Act at Nedlac in 2016. 

Again 8 years later, we are waiting for government to simply press send on their laptop for that progressive Bill that will enhance safety at our mines to Parliament.  Again, COSATU has had to repeatedly remind government to do its work.

Parliament overhauled our criminal legislation in 2021 to help tackle the scourge of gender-based violence and sexual harassment at the work place. 

It is critical that the Department of Employment and Labour put in place mechanisms to ensure that all workplaces train their staff on their rights and responsibilities under these progressive laws, including the prohibition of hiring convicted sex offenders in positions of authority and requiring any persons aware of instances of gender-based violence taking place to report these to law enforcement and persons in authority.

Climate change is a real threat to workers, their families, communities and the economy.  Its effects are being felt with the pollution in the coal belt of Mpumalanga’s towns and communities claiming the lives of thousands of workers annually.

We see it with increasing frequency during devastating floods across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal claiming the lives of many and leaving a destruction of destroyed homes, business and infrastructure.

The residents of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay and the Karoo have seen it as regions experience dwindling supplies of drinkable water.

Rising temperatures, the planting water intensive types of non-indigenous crops and rampant cutting of trees for firewood have seen increasing tracts of land become inarable, unable to sustain agricultural production and in many areas succumbing to desertification.

Research has shown a rise in global temperatures by as little as 2 degrees will leave large areas no longer be able to produce the food we need for life and livelihoods.

The key causes of climate change result from the unsustainable behaviour of humanity and capital’s relentless thirst for profits at the expense of workers and society’s needs and the sustainability of the planet.

Last week Thursday, Parliament passed the Climate Change Bill.  This is a long overdue intervention that provides a balanced approach for South Africa to manage the many crises of climate change and ensure the transitions which are taking place, will be just and protect workers, their jobs and communities. 

It is a welcome assertion by government led by the African National Congress that we will move collectively as a nation, irrespective of our political diversity, to manage climate change and do so in a manner that takes all of society with and leaves no person or community behind.

Vladimir Lenin asked “What is to be done?”

The challenges facing society are immense and cannot be solved by government on its nor by employers or workers.  They require all of us in the spirit of social compacts and solidarity to work together to overcome our common problems.

Government must strengthen and implement our laws, including the hiring of more health and safety and labour inspectors.  They need to ramp up workplace inspections and work with unions during these.  They must not go and have coffee with management.

Employers must abide by our progressive laws, train staff on workplace safety, ensure their full compliance, invest in the safety and training of staff, treat unions as partners in ensuring a safe workplace.  This will boost safety and productivity.

We as Organised Labour must help train and conscientize our members and workers, engage management on problems and propose solutions, hold employers accountable and report those who risk the health and safety of workers and customers.

All of must work together to address the effects and tackle the causes of climate change.  Industries must move towards less pollutive means of production.  We as consumers must help keep our environment clean. 

Government must public works programmes to formalize informal sector workers and assist them to establish SMMEs to recycle waste.  Municipalities and all spheres of government must do more to invest in infrastructure.

What we cannot afford to do is to continue with business as usual.  The failure to adapt and change our behaviour as societies will see climate change accelerate, the environment devastated, jobs and industries lost, migration intensify, workplace health and safety compromised.

It is in our power to change and to ensure that change is a Just Transition that takes workers, communities and businesses with and leaves none behind.

COSATU is a committed partner in this journey.

Thank you.  Matla!